I regret the years I spent not watching HGTV. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. When I think back on the years of my adolescence and young twenties, and on the times that I scrolled past the network on the TV guide, scoffing at the thought of spending my oh-so-valuable time watching a “home improvement show,” I can’t help but laugh at my former naiveté.
“You have no idea how many nights you’re going to spend in sweatpants in front of this channel!” I want to scream at my younger self. “The hours you will lose! The pints of Ben & Jerry’s you will demolish with Joanna Gaines as your only friend!”
The good news — because I know you were worried — is that I’ve more than made up for my HGTV-less years. I’ve seen the light, and I’ve most definitely put in the hours necessary to compensate for the arguably darker period of my life that came before.
But just because you love something — and yes, my friends, I love HGTV — doesn't mean that it’s without its flaws. Ever since I became a regular viewer of Home & Garden Television (formally), I’ve felt a persistent nagging, an awareness that some aspect of my beloved network isn’t quite right. Is it the constant ads for dog food or the fact that, if you tune in too early, you’re stuck with infomercials? No.
It’s the way HGTV portrays women.
I’m well aware that I may have already made a few enemies with that statement alone, but before you wish an attic full of asbestos or knob-and-tube wiring on me (you and I both know these are stressful, expensive situations), consider my case.
I’ve always assumed that the majority of HGTV’s viewership is female — and I’m not drawing purely from gender stereotypes here. Over the years, I’ve had at least one casual conversation about HGTV or any one of its shows or personalities with pretty much all of my female friends. I can’t say the same about the men in my social network. My husband and I can typically agree to an episode of House Hunters International or Fixer Upper if we’re sitting around at home on a weeknight, but it’s not like he’s checking out the HGTV line-up when he’s channel surfing by himself. The numbers back up my assumption, too — according to 2015 data from Scarborough Research, 63 percent of the channel’s total viewership is, in fact, female.
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Why, then, must HGTV’s production and editing teams insist on painting the women who appear on their popular shows in wildly broad strokes of high maintenance, needy, and (dare I even say the word?) bossy? Make no mistake: I’m not suggesting that the network is full of unlikable female personalities. Personally, I find myself wanting to be friends with many of them!
That being said, I don’t think that HGTV does womankind in general any favors by regularly portraying female hosts and homeowners alike as put-upon wives, unprepared contractors, or simply raging farm sink fanatics.
While I’m confident I’ve already put in the hours of observational research necessary to make these claims without ever meaning to, I recently set aside some time to watch HGTV programming with a more critical eye. (For the record, I was definitely not upset about this.)
Women who appear as homeowners or home seekers across HGTV’s programming are portrayed almost exclusively in terms of extremes.
Sadly, though, the more I watched, the more I realized that there’s real, upsetting truth to my theory. Is it easier to find problems with something when you’re actively looking for them? Sure. But that doesn’t make the evidence any less incriminating — and it doesn’t change the fact that I would have been much happier to find that I’d been wrong all along.
Take, for example, the young couple locked in an ongoing stalemate about the importance (or lack thereof) of a formal dining room on a recent episode of House Hunters. He — the classic role of the laidback “cool dude” — doesn’t care about a dining room. Who needs it? She, on the other hand, waxes on about the importance of a formal space in which they can one day rear their yet-to-be-born children over “family suppers.” He refers to a formal dining room as “one more room for her to decorate that we would never use.” At every house they visit, she either whines about the lack of a formal dining room or shrilly celebrates its existence. I have to believe that the show editors included in the final cut every clip they had that featured the phrase “formal dining room.” They also included every single one of her eye rolls.
I don’t have a problem with this young wife’s insistence on having a nice dining space. A girl’s gotta host a dinner party, after all. And I don’t really even have a problem with the number of times that the very same woman was shown brushing off her husband’s inquiries about garage space (though it’s worth noting that I began picking up on this as a regular thread on almost every episode of House Hunters I watched). What I do have a problem with is the fact that the HGTV team consistently builds episodes of their shows around conflicts that seem to me so very gendered and tired.
Women who appear as homeowners or home seekers across HGTV’s programming are portrayed almost exclusively in terms of extremes. So tight with the budget that she refuses to agree to a more expensive neighborhood that would make her dopey husband’s commute more manageable, or otherwise so irresponsible with the pocketbook that she demands high-end features and nothing less. Unwilling to budge on the importance of a mother-in-law suite so that her own mother can move in, or otherwise scoffing at her partner’s appeals to have family drop by more often.
Pay closer attention next time you’re watching, and I can almost guarantee you’ll pick up on it, too.
And as beloved as the show hosts may be, they’re not immune! Love It or List It’s Hilary Farr practically attacks any contractor who tells her something she doesn’t want to hear. (Catty! Aggressive!) Flip or Flop’s Christina El Moussa wears a full face of make-up and open-toed shoes to every construction site she visits. (High maintenance! Unprepared!) Even Joanna Gaines — light of my life! — is portrayed as a perpetually annoyed wife. I know her banter with Chip is part of the brand, but I wish there were a little less eye rolling. Why does Chip always get to be the fun guy? We all know Jo’s way cooler than that.
I’m not here to declare that I’m boycotting HGTV. Honestly, I’ll probably tune in tonight. I do think, though, that it’s important for us to be aware of how this entertainment powerhouse (it was the third most-watched cable network in 2016, according to Bloomberg) is portraying women, so we can at least try to break down those stereotypes next time we find ourselves smack in the middle of a House Hunters marathon.
Really, I just want what’s best for Joanna.